Of all Berlioz’s Shakespeare-inspired works, Romeo et Juliette is unquestionably his masterpiece. It is also cast in an innovative new form, a kind of ‘super-symphony’ that incorporates elements of symphony, opera and oratorio. Berlioz composed no singing roles for the central characters, but allowed others to comment or narrate, giving latitude to incarnate the lovers in a musical language of extraordinary delicacy and passion. The vivid ‘Ball Scene’ and ‘Romeo at the Capulet tomb’ are intensely dramatic but the heart of the work is the ‘Love Scene,’ a long symphonic poem which Richard Wagner called ‘the melody of the 19th century.’
Roméo gets off to an arresting start with aRead more properly combative ‘Introduction’ representing the fighting houses of the Montagues and the Capulets. Once past the vocal preliminaries, Berlioz becomes orchestra-centric for a lonely and sad Romeo, a party courtesy of the Capulets (Juliet’s brethren), a serene if burgeoning love episode and the remarkable ‘Queen Mab (Scherzo)’. All are handsomely brought off, Slatkin not so much conducting the music as communing with it.
Of the Overtures, that to Béatrice et Bénédict is deftly traversed with flair and fondness (and an ear for the piccolo). It’s an adorable piece, Berlioz at his most mercurial, wistful, spring-heeled and insouciant, whereas King Lear is great theatre, more a symphonic poem than the composer’s designated Concert Overture, informed here by sonorous strings, dramatic cut and thrust, and with lyricism that is aflame, including a long-lined melody that stays with you and for which Slatkin mercifully avoids dragging phrase-ends; one of Romantic Music’s glories.